I watched Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall this past week and got way too excited in the way only a film junkie can. Despite the film being 44 years old, it felt more modern than most movies that came out last year. Coupled with my shameless love for romantic comedies, I felt—in my self-absorbed way—that what the world needed was an article breaking down the influence Annie Hall had on the romantic comedy genre.
Annie Hall (dir. Woody Allen, 1977)
In 1977, Annie Hall beat out George Lucas’ Star Wars to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The film was by far Allen’s most decorated and financially successful, and marked a distinct change in his style, eschewing the shallow skit-comedy of his earlier work for something with a little more life in it.
The film revolves around Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) as he looks back on his relationship with the oh-so-fashionable Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Now if that sounds like a cliché to you, just know that this is the movie that made it a cliché.
Alvy Singer, with his acerbic cynicism, and Annie Hall with her ditzy sincerity have been the blueprint for so many great Hollywood movie characters since. The dichotomy between a cynical, overthinking character and a hopeful idealist is just too soothing to forget.
The set designs that Allen used have been filtered down through generations of films, and you’ve probably heard of Alvy’s jokes even if you’ve never reached the credits of a film made before 2010. I could list out all the jokes here, but neither of us would enjoy that. So instead, grab yourself a two-hour glass of wine, tell your housemates you’ve got a big day tomorrow, lock yourself in your room, and watch this movie and the films it inspired.
When Harry Met Sally (dir. Rob Reiner, 1989)
Hailed as one of the greatest rom-coms ever, Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally is a film built from Annie Hall’sscaffolding. From the trademarked opening credits, to the nuanced characterization, to the familiar sound of New York traffic permeating every frame, When Harry Met Sally has been called “the best 1977 Woody Allen movie made in 1989.”
Now, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) may be a slightly more depressing, less comedic Alvy Singer, but the two share their cynicism about love and romance. Sally Albrecht (Meg Ryan) might be a little tougher to warm up to than Annie Hall—and considering her khaki shorts, a lot less stylish—but both characters pull the blinds open and let a little sunshine into the film’s cynical side.
When Harry Met Sally brings sincerity but lacks the original comedy of Annie Hall, a quality that reflects an evolution from the postmodern to the contemporary. Reiner’s film lacks the self-reflective fourth wall breaks and the skit-like post-structuralist styling of Annie Hall. Instead, it settles for a cohesive structure and a hopeful and idealistic ending. This is perhaps the only difference between the two films: Annie Hall is a story looking back on how love was lost; When Harry Met Sally is a story of love being found.
500 Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb, 2009)
Perhaps the most unashamed tip-of-the-cap to Annie Hall is Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer. There’s a good chance you’ve heard this movie referenced by the same people who think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the most underrated film (which it’s not, at least not while About Time is still around).
The film was a breath of fresh air in rom-coms. It disrupted the genre’s all-too-idealistic tendency to portray love as easy and only a meet-cute away with a more blunt, realistic thesis: sometimes, no matter how convinced you are that you’ve found “the one,” you’re wrong. Sometimes, when you think you’ve lost the one, you’re actually just about to meet them. If Annie Hall was a paint by number and you were using Juno’s colour palette, you’d have 500 Days of Summer.
The film’s most imaginative scene is the brilliant two-panelled shot that imagines Tom’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)fantasy and bitter reality when going to meet Summer (Zooey Deschanel) at her twinkly rooftop dinner party. This two-panelled “diptych” shot echoes the classic therapy scene in Annie Hall but reimagines it in a beautifully evocative way.
Before Sunrise (dir. Richard Linklater, 1995)
On the surface, the two films seem entirely different. Annie Hall is expansive, ambiguous, and ironic. Before Sunrise is brief, straightforward, and sincere. But deep down, there are some distinct similarities between the two films—starting with their cynical, perhaps overly conscious, male protagonist. In Annie Hall, Alvy is a neurotic Jewish New Yorker who sees anyone who doesn’t like him as anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, in Before Sunrise, Jessy (Ethan Hawke) is instinctually skeptic of others around him, a quality I think many recently dumped people take on.
The two skeptics, however dedicated to their craft, both fall for the sincere, hopeful women who act as antidotes for their male counterparts—granted Julie Delpy isn’t nearly as stylish as Diane Keaton, but the two share a common footing.
Both films also offer a refreshingly honest portrayal of love that dismantles the alluring, heavily cliché “happily ever after” ending. Instead, each emphasize the importance of cherishing the moment, however, they do so in a much less overused way.
Now maybe I’m just stretching a similarity in order to reference this movie—which is likely considering my adoration for it—but Before Sunrise owes as much of its characterization to Annie Hall as Star Wars would owe its setting to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Despite that being the case, do watch this movie, please.
Now, if you want to spend your time pulling at the thread trying to find some solution to infinite regression, be my guest. But I’m going to let things rest here before I start to doubt whether there’s ever been an original thought in film.